Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Blog on Vacation until Next Week

This is actually a picture of Hawaii, not the North Carolina mountains where I'm headed. But I like its mixed image of desert-like rock and green.
Off I go, hoping to return refreshed!

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

This week's meditation comes a bit early, because I'm soon off to Lutheridge for the Create-in-Me retreat! There's still room, so if you're in the Asheville, NC area, come join us, for the whole retreat or just for one day (go here for more details).

The readings for Sunday, May 3, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 4:5-12

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: 1 John 3:16-24

Gospel: John 10:11-18

In this week's Gospel, we see one of the most persistent metaphors for Jesus: Jesus as shepherd. Even in these non-agricultural days, we understand this image, probably because it has been so widely used during 2000 years of Christianity.

It's interesting to think about the other side of this metaphor. If Jesus is the shepherd, who are the sheep? We are, of course. Those of us who haven't grown up around sheep probably think of them as delightful, fuzzy creatures. But they're not. They're big and smelly and not especially bright--that's why they need a shepherd. On my bleak days, calling humans sheep seems like an apt metaphor. We tend not to act in our self-interest. We tend to stand in place with a blank look on our faces. If no one comes along to guide us, we'll just stand there, blinking. If we get knocked over, we need someone to pick us up. I could go on and on like this, but I'll let you Google the word sheep and consider all the poetic possibilities.

What I found most interesting about this passage which is so familiar is verse 16: "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."

I'm of two minds about this passage. I read it with the knowledge of all that has happened in the last two thousand years, and all the ways that this kind of Biblical language has been used coercively and hurtfully to imply that only Christians are the ones with the Truth. I'm aware of the disastrous actions that can follow that kind of belief.

But this larger vision of Jesus does interest me. It interests me because it's in the Gospel of John, which was the last Gospel written. Earlier Gospels don't have this same kind of expansive vision, this vision of Jesus as the shepherd of all people. Is it there because of the spread of Christianity that the writer who composed the Gospel of John had seen? I'm fascinated by the differences in the Gospels.

As a poet, I'm also interested in the power of this metaphor. Here we are in a world where few of us have seen a sheep, and yet, this metaphor still speaks to us. Most of us are likely moved by the idea of a shepherd who would sacrifice all to save one sheep. You find a similar narrative in many romantic love stories--how desperately we want to believe that someone can love us that completely.

That's the Good News of the Gospels: we are loved that completely. Someone believes that we're worthy of that effort. We will not be sacrificed for the good of the flock. The Good Shepherd will sacrifice all for the individual sheep. We can rest secure in that knowledge.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Church as a Personal Trainer

A few days ago, in The New York Times, I read an article about why normal people likely need a personal trainer to achieve their athletic best. It made me think about how we are a do-it-yourself culture, and how little we like to rely on the expertise of others.

The article points out that most people don't have the foggiest idea of how to go about training on their own. This point made me think about whether or not a similar dynamic is at work for people who claim they are "spiritual, but not religious," or people who just aren't into organized religion.

I'd like to think that our do-it-yourself culture can train itself, but if it's not true for athletics, it's likely not true in other areas. The evidence of people's lack of ability to train themselves is all around us--how many of us are carrying an extra 20+ pounds? Look around--you'll see heavy people at all sides.

I suspect that if we carried our spiritual failings in the same kind of obvious way as we carry our extra pounds, we'd see that most of us are failing to train ourselves spiritually.

Now, yes, I know that bad churches abound--I've been part of them. But most of us live in communities with a plethora of churches. If the church you're attending isn't working, consider changing churches.

I spent many years sticking with a church that wasn't working for me, and I had some good reasons for doing it. You might too--maybe your family likes your current church more than you do. Maybe you really want to stay with a particular denomination, and you'd have to drive too many miles to find an option. Maybe you're hoping that you can be an effective agent for change. Several years ago, I found this post on a blog, and it gave me comfort. Maybe you'll get some comfort too--and some ideas for how to survive a less-than-optimal church.

As in sports, even if we're having a sub-optimal training experience, having some training experience often means we'll achieve more than if we didn't. Just as being part of an exercise group keeps us accountable, being part of a church keeps us accountable and reminds us of our purpose.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Detritus of a Liturgical Half Year

Last week, I needed to clear out the back seat of my car. I don't usually let it get so cluttered. I'm not sure how this happened. Lately, I've been dreaming about having to do impossible tasks, like having to teach 5 classes in addition to my 40+ administrative hours or donate my inner organs while still living, but how hard is it to take my stuff inside?

I found bulletins from mid-Advent to Christmas Eve to Easter and many Sundays in between. I found several palms from Palm Sunday. I found Labyrinth related material. I found a faded tie-dyed shirt that I planned to tie dye at a school event--several months ago. I found some playbills: A Chorus Line, The Vagina Monologues, Drinking in America.

Last week I gave blood at church and filled out the 2 page questionnaire about my habits. I felt so boring: no strange needle habits, no sex with Africans, no travel to exotic places, no fascinating food explorations. Granted, I'm healthy, especially for a 43 year old woman, healthy in a way that I might not have been, had my past behavior meant I had to answer those questions differently. My inner voice sneers, healthy, but dull.

Cleaning out my car showed me a different side. It made me wonder about God, and how differently God sees us from how we see us. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: we would be such healthier, happier people, if we could only adopt God's view of ourselves.

Maybe your inner critic is kinder than mine. But nonetheless, it's important to remember that your inner critic--well-meaning or harsh--is not talking in the voice of God. God loves us with a completeness that we only grasp incompletely. God doesn't see us as a bundle of faults or risky behavior. God doesn't see us as boring. We're the ones who cast a harsh light on our past. If only we could stop.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Becoming a Better Godparent--Give Periodicals

So, you say you'd like to send your godchild something on a monthly basis, but you just don't have time. Give your godchild a subscription to a periodical, and let someone else do the work for you.

My mom bought my nephew (who is my godchild) a subscription to The Little Lutheran, which is also published as The Little Christian, and it's a periodical that would appeal to most mainline Christians (go here for more details). I suspect that most denominations have a similar publication.

My sister reports that my nephew LOVES this magazine. They read it obsessively each month as it comes in. It makes me happy that my nephew is both learning to love to read and to love God with this gift. And of course, since he loves the magazine, he returns to it again and again.

Some of these magazine subscriptions might seem pricey, especially compared to adult subscriptions. The Little Lutheran costs $24.95 for 10 issues. Yet that's less that $3 an issue, which is a pretty good price for a monthly gift.

So, give your godchild a year-long subscription to a periodical and let the periodical and the U.S. Mail service do the rest.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 26, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 3:12-19

Psalm: Psalm 4

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-7

Gospel: Luke 24:36b-48

In this week's Gospel, we have another post-Resurrection appearance story, and what an odd story it is. In the post-Resurrection stories, Jesus has taken on supernatural capacities that he didn't really demonstrate before his crucifixion. Here, he suddenly appears (a few verses earlier, he has vanished after eating).

The disciples quite logically assume that they're seeing a ghost. Their senses, rooted in the rational world, can't make sense of what they're seeing and hearing. Those of us who spend our secular lives surrounded by people who are disdainful of the mystical might find ourselves more sympathetic to their plight.

Perhaps we've felt the same way. It's not hard to accept the pre-Resurrection stories of Jesus, at least most of them. We're not unaccustomed to hearing about humans who can do almost superhuman things: human rights crusaders, charismatic politicians, the fabulous doctor that we'd hate to lose. Just think of Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, and all those other people who might make us feel inadequate for just living normal lives. Some times, we lump Jesus in with those kinds of people, and we forget about the spiritual side of the Gospel. Even when Jesus performs spectacular miracles, they don't seem outside the range of possibility in our current day and age.

But these post-Resurrection stories don't let us dance away from Jesus' identity. We might know of someone who has been declared dead, maybe for a few minutes, and returned with stories of white lights and floating above one's body. But to die and lie in a tomb for 3 days and then come back to life? So far, no human has ever done that.

I like how these post-Resurrection stories, shrouded as they may be in mystery, are also still rooted in the earthy body-ness of Jesus. Jesus appears to people, and then he asks for food, which he eats. This evidence shows that he's not a ghost or a spiritual presence; doubters can't explain the post-Resurrection sightings with this claim. Jesus is still God Incarnate. His body still needs all the things our bodies need: food, liquid, sleep, a bath.

In this week's Gospel, Jesus again shows us a useful way of inhabiting our human bodies. He shows his scars, which might lead to some exchanging of stories, if the disciples didn't already know the story of how he got them. He shares food with them. He reminds them of their higher destiny and calls them to greater things.

Jesus is still here, reminding us of his scars and of the capacity to overcome those things that scar us. Jesus is still here, waiting to share a meal with us. Jesus is still here, reminding us that we are witnesses, that we are called to a far greater destiny than our tiny imaginations can envision.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Walking the Labyrinth Alone

Last night, I walked the Labyrinth alone. I was running early for a 7:30 poetry reading at Broward College, which is just across the street from my church, so I decided to walk the Labyrinth. In the past year, I've either walked it as part of a group, or walked it while a group was near by. Last night, I was totally alone.

At first it felt weird. I've been reading more news stories lately about violence against women, so I've been more skittish these days. Plus, there were rain clouds rumbling across the sky.

But soon, the Labyrinth worked its magic, and I began to feel calm and centered. Then I started to notice some things. Two more tiles were broken, for one thing. I could have replaced them, but I was in my dress up clothes (coming to a poetry reading from work), so I decided not to. I came across a child's notebook in one of the spirals, a small thing the size of a playing card, with a Peter Rabbit on the cover. I picked it up, but it was waterlogged from recent rain. I put it back down. I also noticed what looked like some palms from Palm Sunday, although down here in South Florida, they could have blown in from some palm tree. But there they were, in the shape of a cross.

Once again, the Labyrinth reminds me of the value of slowing down. I've spent the last several days swamped at work; we discovered that we're losing a classroom, which has meant that I've had to rework the whole Summer schedule of classes, a job I thought I was done with months ago. Grr. But the Labyrinth reminds me of the circular nature of life; we're never really done, are we? We're just at a different place in the path.

And the Labyrinth reminds me of all the ways God winks at me during the course of a day. Often, I'm too busy or too irritable or too exhausted to notice. Happily God will keep trying to get our attention. And if we can find spiritual practices that help us to pay attention, so much the better.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Becoming a Better Godparent--Communicate Regularly

Last time, I talked about sending your godchild a card on the anniversary of his/her baptism. But as I was writing, it occurred to me how much better it would be to communicate regularly. I like the idea of something more permanent than a phone call, something the child and parents could refer to again and again. I tend to think in terms of writing, but you could use any of the prompts to create a collage, take inspired photographs, make a recording/podcast of your voice responding to the prompt--you're only limited by your imagination and your art supplies/access to technology.


--What's your favorite Bible verse? Why?

--What are some other Bible verses you love? Why?

--Once a month, you could send a card with a short verse, and a few sentences about why the verse is meaningful to you.

--What's your favorite Bible story?

--Tell your godchild about a time when you've seen God at work in your life.

--If you know the family of the godchild, you could tell stories about when the godchild's family members have known that God is at work in their lives.

--Talk about something you've seen in nature that reminded you of the wonder of God's creation.

--Create prayers for your godchild. Illustrate them.

--Are there works of art (don't limit yourself to painting--think about music, sculpture, poetry, and such) that help you move closer to God? Tell your godchild about them.

--As you sing your favorite hymns throughout the year, write to your godchild about the hymn and the memories the hymn inspires.

--You might also write/communicate about the other aspects of the church service which are meaningful to you.

--If you hear a good sermon on a Sunday, write to your godchild and talk about it. If you're blessed to be part of a church that gives a good children's sermon, tell your godchild about it.

--If you're part of a liturgical church, send your godchild a card as the liturgical seasons change. You could create a meditation on the colors of the season. You could write about your memories (for example, do you remember Summer as "the long green season"?).

--As you attend other spiritual events (weddings, confirmations, first communions, other baptisms, funerals), use these events as a springboard to spiritual discussions, memories, and other communications with your godchild.

--You might also communicate your periods of doubt and despair, especially if you've moved through them. It's helpful for us to remember that living a faith-based life doesn't mean we'll be excused from the hard part of being a human (in fact, it might open us to more pain, as we try to be compassionate to God's creation).

--Tell your godchild about the things for which you're grateful. Think of ways to cultivate a spirit of gratitude in your godchild.

--As you work on social justice projects, tell your godchild about them and why they're important. You might even take your godchild with you to social justice projects that aren't dangerous: bagging food at a food pantry, serving food to the homeless, collecting clothes for the less fortunate, sending books to colleges in Africa, prayer services for oppressed groups, rallies to demand fair housing, and similar experiences.

It would be great to start and continue a dialogue with your godchild, instead of just sending missives. So you could send something, and then follow up with a phone call or an e-mail. Let your godchild know that you're open to questions and that you'll answer honestly. Engage your godchild in wrestling with the basic spiritual questions, and try not to freak out as your godchild does so.

The parents of your godchild chose you to be a godparent for a reason. Out of all the people in the world, they chose you and entrusted you with this responsibility. Just think of what a better world we'd have if we all took this job seriously. Within a generation, perhaps the problems that some churches face in terms of decline would be reversed. Maybe we'd see a spiritually mature generation full of compassion and a thirst for justice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Becoming a Better Godparent--Send Baptismal Anniversary Cards

One of the things I meant to do, and I am resolved to do from now on, was to send my nephew, for whom I am the Christian Monitor (or Godmother), a card each year on the anniversary of his baptism.

I plan to make these cards myself. I haven't planned these out, but I like the idea of drawing something myself, or collaging images, or something that isn't mass-marketed (besides, my local Target doesn't have much). Plus, I want to write something each year.

What to write? Here are some ideas:

--If you were at the baptism, write your memories of your godchild's baptism.

--If you've been at baptisms for others in the godchild's family, write those memories.

--What did your family tell you about your baptism?

--If you know some of the spiritual stories of the family, write those down.

--Write about your own family's responses to baptism. Did your family celebrate your baptismal anniversary with you? Did you light the baptismal candle?

--You could also write about the family practices of your friends as you were growing up. Did they celebrate their baptisms.

--Write about what baptism means to you. You might talk about the water one year, the words the next.

--As your godchild gets older, write about what baptism has meant to famous theologians. For example, I love the story of Martin Luther, who is said to have said "Baptismo Sum" (Latin for "I am baptized") each morning as he washed. Not a bad daily habit.

--As your godchild gets older, you might introduce your godchild to the idea that different denominations within Christianity treat baptism differently. You might explain some of those differences (and you should try to avoid being judgmental if you can; you might not approve of adult baptism, but your godchild might grow up and fall in love with someone who does).

--If you have some photos, send a different one each year. Use those as a writing prompt.

I think that what often keeps me from writing is that I fear I don't have enough to say. But most people enjoy receiving something in the mail, even if the message is brief. Even if you only have a sentence or two, send it.

And if you enjoy these activities, why limit yourself to just once a year? Send something once a quarter or once a month. Your task, as Godparent, is to help to shape that child's spiritual life. There are many different things you could write about, and tomorrow, I'll provide some more writing prompts. And as your godchild receives your cards/writings/photos/gifts, your godchild will receive a gentle reminder of who that child is and of all the people (and God!) who love that child.

My final thought will seem grim, but it must be said. We tend to assume that we'll live long lives and shepherd our godchildren safely into and through adulthood. But we can't assume that. And even if we do live long lives, our memories tend to fade. Your godchild needs you to provide some spiritual narratives, and this task is especially important if you have memories of your godchild's family members. Get as much written down as you can.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 19, 2009:

First Reading: Acts 4:32-35

Psalm: Psalm 133

Second Reading: 1 John 1:1--2:2

Gospel: John 20:19-31

This week's Gospel returns us to the familiar story of Thomas, who will always be known as Doubting Thomas, no matter what else he did or accomplished. One of the bloggers at RevGalBlogPals posts, "You have to love him (while being glad that we're not all branded for centuries on account of one aspect of our characters; you can so imagine it...'She's a bit of a panicking Kathryn, you know...')"; I would forever be Fretful Kristin, I'm afraid.

And yet, what I love about the Gospels most is that we get to see humans interacting with the Divine, in all of our human weaknesses. Particularly in the last few weeks, we've seen humans betray and deny and doubt--but God can work with us.

If you were choosing a group of people most unlikely to start and spread a lasting worldwide movement, it might be these disciples. They have very little in the way of prestige, connections, wealth, networking skills, marketing smarts, or anything else you might look for if you were calling modern disciples. And yet, Jesus transformed them.

Perhaps it should not surprise us. The Old Testament, too, is full of stories of lackluster humans unlikely to succeed: mumblers and cheats, bumblers and the unwise. God can use anyone, even murderers.

How does this happen? The story of Thomas gives us a vivid metaphor. When we thrust our hands into the wounds of Jesus, we're transformed. Perhaps that metaphor is too gory for your tastes, and yet, it speaks to the truth of our God. We have a God who wants to know us in all our gooey messiness. We have a God who knows all our strengths and all our weaknesses, and still, this God desires closeness with us. And what's more, this God invites us to a similar intimacy. Jesus doesn't say, "Here I am, look at me and believe." No, Jesus offers his wounds and invites Thomas to touch him.

Jesus will spend the next several weeks eating with the disciples, breathing on them, and being with them physically one last time. Then he sends them out to transform the wounded world.

We, too, are called to lay our holy hands on the wounds of the world and to heal those wounds. It's not enough to just declare the Good News of Easter. We are called to participate in the ongoing redemption of creation. We know creation intimately, and we know which wounds we are most capable of healing. Some of us will work on environmental issues, some of us will make sure that the poor are fed and clothed, some of us will work with criminals and the unjustly accused, and more of us will help children.

In the coming weeks, be alert to the recurring theme of the breath of Jesus and the breath of God. You have the breath of the Divine on you too.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Becoming a Better Godparent--Take the Challenge!

The baptism that we had at church on Sunday reminded me of my little nephew and my participation in his baptism. I'm his Christian Monitor; in other traditions, I'd be called a godmother, but because I'm not Catholic, and my sister and brother-in-law are, I must be called the Christian Monitor. I kind of like that title.

But lately, I've been doing more monitoring than guiding or leading. I've been feeling guilty about that. I had such good intentions.

Luckily, I've come to my senses in time. After all, when my nephew was a baby, one could argue that sending him gifts and cards made no sense, in that he wouldn't remember. But now he's getting to the age where he'll remember.

I called my sister on Good Friday, partly to chat, and partly because it was Good Friday, and I had my own childhood on the brain. She, too, is godmother to several children, and is feeling guilty about her inactivity.

So, in the spirit of sibling competition/cooperation, we've decided to inspire each other to be better godmothers. And since we can't be the only ones in need of ideas to transform us into better godparents, I've decided to start a series on this blog. Eventually, we'll all have a series of ideas.

If something has worked well for you (either as the one who did the spiritual mentoring or one who was affected by a spiritual elder), I'd love to hear about it. You could send me an e-mail, and I'd write it up for you. You could guest blog here (contact me via e-mail, and we'll set something up). Or leave comments in the comment section.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ways to Celebrate Easter

So, how did your church celebrate Easter? Did you have special music? Maybe a special brass section? Was your church filled with flowers? Did you have a breakfast? An Easter egg hunt?

My church has 3 services, and I attended two of them. I decided to skip the sunrise service, and I was Assisting Minister for the 8 a.m. service, which was the most meaningful for me. We read the lessons for the day and sang lots of traditional music. We also affirmed our baptism, and the children sprinkled the congregation with water from the baptismal font and a palm frond.

Our 10:45 service was jam-packed, and the focal point of the service was the Easter Cantata. While I enjoyed it, the service felt more like a concert, and less like worship--except that we had a baptism, a great way to celebrate.

I've carried tissues with me all week, but yesterday, when I had no tissues, I cried and cried. The little boy being baptized reminded me of my nephew and his baptism. The song, "Borning Cry," always moves me, and reminded me of my sister's wedding. Happily, these relatives are still alive, so at least I wasn't in the position of my spouse: the anniversary of the death of his mom fell square on Easter Sunday this year.

The other issue I had with the Easter Cantata was that much of it focused on the Holy Week story. By the time we get to Easter, I'm ready to leave the cross behind. Of course, as I looked around me, I realized that I hadn't seen most of these people at any point during the past week, so maybe it was good to remind them of what brought us to Easter morning.

We came home, made our Easter festive meal (lamb on the grill, two kinds of potatoes, and asparagus) and watched Jesus Christ, Superstar, which I had never seen. After a very slow start, I found it compelling. The ending felt strange to me--no Easter, no resurrection, just people getting on a bus and that empty cross.

When we watched it again with the commentary on, I noticed the figure walking across the bottom of the screen at the end. A symbol for the risen Christ? Norman Jewison, the director, says he didn't plan it, but decided to leave it in. It was one of many spooky synchronicities that made the film so intriguing.

All in all, a good Easter week-end. Now to think about Pentecost . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2009

One of my Poems for Spring and Easter

Happy Easter! He is risen indeed!

I usually save my poetry self for my other blog, but today seems like a good day for one of my poems. It first appeared in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard (Pudding House Publications, 2004).

The poem is based on real events, and I wrote it to remind myself of the possibility of miracles.

Rainy Redemption

She told us the X-ray showed a black
spot on her lung. We assumed the cancer harbored
in her breast had set on an odyssey
for new land, and when we didn’t see her
again, we assumed the worst.

Three years later, the flowers bloomed in their annual
tribute to spring, and I saw
her in a parking lot. At first, I thought I saw a ghost, but I held her fleshly
form, still sapling-thin, and knew she had returned,
Lazarus-like, to live among us again.

Our culture focuses on the lost, the missing
in action, but we forget the world commits
to resurrection and reunion. The twig of a tree
sends sap to its tips, the crispy lawn returns
to a life filled with chlorophyll, muscles
wait for the mind to remember what they never forgot,
each generation resurrects the music of its elders,
babies look towards the sky for the familiar
face of the missing parent, history holds
us in its hands and offers rainy redemption.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Strangest Good Friday Ever

One of our Good Friday services was at the Labyrinth. People could come and walk, and we had a bulletin about the Stations of the Cross, which coordinated with bricks that were numbered. The church did this kind of self-directed service last year, and it was well-received.

I planned to be at the Labyrinth from noon-3. We needed people there to hand out the bulletins, to answer questions, to tell people that we had water in the cooler. I expected a peaceful, meditative afternoon.

When I got to the Labyrinth, I found out that someone had vandalized it. As you see in the photo in the post below, we used old roofing tiles when we laid out the Labyrinth. They're fragile, in some ways, in the same way that your dinner plate is fragile: if you jump on it, it will break.

It looked like someone had jumped on at least a quarter of the tiles. The tiles were still in place, so we decided to go ahead with the Stations of the Cross opportunity that we had planned. In many ways, the broken clay tiles made a great symbol of Good Friday.

After 3, we decided to replace the broken tiles, thinking that to leave them broken would be akin to leaving graffiti on display: it would just encourage more vandalism. So, I spent 2 hours on Good Friday piling broken clay pieces into a wheelbarrow and moving whole tiles into place. The first hour, I didn't have gloves, because we had 2 pairs of gloves and 3 workers.

I had lots of time to reflect as I was working. My thoughts ranged from the mundane ("I'd been wishing I had more chance for an upper body workout!") to the despairing ("We're making no progress! There are so many broken pieces!") to the poetic ("So many great symbolic elements here: broken clay, aching hands and feet, resurrection . . .").

When we first assembled the Labyrinth, I was part of a different church, but I was invited to help put it together, which I did for an hour. Now, I've helped put it back together again. The whole experience has made me think about how often our human plans end in tears, yet even in tears, there is room for hope. We're thinking of ways to make it clear that the Labyrinth is sacred space, by planting shrubs and other greenery. We're thinking of moving one of the labyrinths (the square, Roman-style one) to a different place on the property, since we used a lot of its tiles to resurrect the circular labyrinth.

I was expecting the Tenebrae service to be the highlight of the day. While it was meaningful, my time with the Labyrinth was even more profound. I found myself moved to tears at the thought of clay vessels broken open (what are humans, anyway, but clay vessels?). I found myself moved to tears at the thought of all the plans of God, gone terribly wrong because humans muck it up. I found myself profoundly affected by thinking about all the ways God redeems creation, no matter how many times we ruin things.

And now we wait for Easter.

Walking the Stations of the Cross at the Labyrinth for Good Friday

photo by Pastor Keith Spencer

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday, Tenebrae, and the proper amount of drama

I tend to judge churches based on their music and the sermon, and I can be quite negatively judgmental if a church abandons the readings from the Common Lectionary to chart their own course. Lately, I've been thinking that how a church conducts Good Friday service might also be a way for me to tell whether or not the church is a good fit for me.

As a child, I had two favorite services: Christmas Eve (of course) and Good Friday. Yes, even before I became a drama major, I had a sense of good theatre. I liked both services for many reasons, but mainly I liked them because they were so different from what we did the rest of the year and because they were so richly symbolic.

I'll never forget the first time I went to a Good Friday service at my last church. Sun streamed in through the windows because we had the service early in the evening, in the hopes that our many elderly parishioners would come if they thought they could be home by dark. The lights blazed throughout the building. We didn't have any additional candles. We zipped through the readings in a perfunctory, monotone voice.

And then, to my shock, the service was over. No big booming slam of the Bible. The lights were still on, the candles still lit. We left the building not in silence, but in chattiness at the door as people coordinated the Easter decorating.

In disgust, I went home and watched Jesus of Montreal, a perfect film for Good Friday.

I stayed with that church for ten years. I always tried to move the church towards doing more with various worship services. That church did Christmas Eve really well, but I could never convince anyone that the Good Friday services needed fixing.

Tonight, at my "new church" (we joined in December), we will have a full, Tenebrae service. Our pastor has mentioned his high school drama teacher, and we've had fascinating conversations about being English majors in college, so at last, I've found a pastor with a similar mindset to mine (my former pastor was a History major and a volunteer fireman/policeman before he was a pastor--make of that what you will). A worship service has many similarities to a good theatre performance, and we ignore that at our peril. And with a service like Good Friday's, where it doesn't take much to figure out how to inject drama and symbolism into the service, it's insane to treat it as if it's a Thanksgiving Eve service or something similarly expendable.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

First Foot Washing Service

Tonight, my church has a foot washing service as part of their Maundy Thursday service. This will be the first time I've ever taken part in a foot washing service. At least, I'm pretty sure it is.

A foot washing service seems like the kind of thing we should have done in the groovy 70's, in our youth groups, if nothing else. But I'm pretty sure we never did such a thing. A Seder meal would have been as far as the churches of my youth would have gone. Foot washing? Where we touch each other? Not likely.

It seems like the kind of thing we should have done in college. We communed each other--you'd have thought we would have come up with the idea of a foot washing component. But I'm sure we didn't do it in my Lutheran Student Movement days in the mid 1980's.

So, foot washing. I'm open, although I must admit I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about my shoes, trying to determine which ones leave my feet in the best shape for them to be handled by a church member.

I also must remember to take some tissues. I've spent the last several weeks feeling close to tears at various points in various services, so I'd be surprised if I don't get weepy at some point as we move through the end of Holy Week to Easter.

If you live in the South Florida area, or if you're down here for Spring Break, I'd invite you to worship with us. Go to this blog and look for the information on the left margin to see all of your options.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Meditation on this Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 12, 2009:First Reading: Acts 10:34-43

First Reading (Alt.): Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Mark 16:1-8

Gospel (Alt.): John 20:1-18

Finally we move through Holy Week to Easter Sunday. At last, our Lenten pilgrimage draws to a close.

But perhaps you still linger back at Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you find the Good Friday texts more evocative than the Easter texts. It's interesting how our emotional lives aren't always in sync with the liturgical seasons or the Lectionary.

This year might be particularly tough with so many of us out of work, and those of us who remain employed in fear of losing our jobs. This year might be the year that the anniversary of a death of a loved one falls right smack on Easter day. This year might be the year that someone we love faces a tough medical diagnosis. The world offers so many impediments to our joy.

The stories we hear during Holy Week remind us of how to move from lives that have been reduced to ash back to lives full of resurrection. This year, the Maundy Thursday story speaks to me, perhaps because I've just read Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.

She observes, as many theologians have, that the teachings of Jesus revolve around the things we do, not the things we believe. The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed came much later in Christianity. Long before we had creeds, we had Jesus saying, "Do this. Now do this. Now do this." We are to feed the hungry, care for the sick, protect the widows and orphans. Taylor comments on the Last Supper: "With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do--specific ways of being together in their bodies--that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself" (43). We have "embodied sacraments of bread, wine, water, and feet" (44).

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my belief. I argue that my beliefs come because of my practice, and that she could enter into spiritual practices, and she would be a different person in a year. She proclaims not to believe me, but she also refuses to try my experiment. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192). Holy Week reminds us of what we are called to do.

We are called to break bread together, to drink wine together. We are called to invite the outcast to supper with us. We are called to care for each other's bodies--not to sexualize them or mock them or brutalize them, but to wash them tenderly. Thus fortified, we are called to announce that the Kingdom of God is breaking out among us in the world in which we live, and we are called to demand justice for the oppressed.

Of course, Holy Week reminds us of the risk. Jesus was crucified--that was a capital punishment reserved for those who were considered a threat to the state, people who would foment rebellion, for example. The world does not often respond kindly to the call for social justice.

But Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, is a great Easter text (I've underlined something on almost every page), and Wright says forcefully, " . . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208). We may not understand how God will transform the world. We may not be able to believe that bleakness will be defeated. But Easter shows us God's promise that death is not the final answer.

Spring reminds us that nature commits to resurrection. Easter reminds us of God's promise of resurrection. Now is the time for us to rekindle our resurrection selves.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

More Passover Resources

I hesitate to write too much about the rituals of other religions; most days, I feel hesitant about the idea of speaking as a representative Christian--I hate the negative stereotypes that don't represent any of the Christians that I know (as I've blogged before, believers are the least hypocritical people I know, but most non-believers wouldn't believe me), but I also feel a bit fretful, without any of the requisite degrees that might mark me as Christian expert.

I know that many people of all sorts of beliefs are fascinated by the intersections where various faiths meet, and Passover is one of those intersections. For people who can explain the Exodus story in ways I never could, go visit the Speaking of Faith website where their most recent show is posted. You can listen to the show with its compelling discussion of the Exodus story. Avivah Zornberg is a master interpreter of Scriptural mysteries and a scholar of Torah texts.

Plus, the website has lots of other resources, as well as references to books, for those who want even more. I particularly liked this page, with writings that have been inspired by Exodus, with a poem by Adrienne Rich and an excerpt of Martin Luther King's work, among others.

One of the disadvantages of just Googling "Passover Resources for Christians" (or something similar) is that you're likely to end up at all kinds of wackadoo sites that have not-so-hidden agendas. I'm always hesitant to trespass too far into the religions of others, but as I explore these sites, I realize that others don't share my trepidation.

Happily, we have sites like Speaking of Faith, sites that let us learn more about the religious beliefs of others, without demonizing these beliefs or twisting them.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Seder Resource: "Pesach For the Rest of Us"

When I was a teenager in the late 70's and early 80's, I remember being at several churches that did a Seder meal. Why would a Lutheran church create a Seder meal?

It's important to remember the Jewish roots of Jesus. Many religious traditions view the Last Supper, the origin of the Christian Eucharist, as a Seder meal, so why wouldn't we explore it?

It's important to remember the Jewish roots of Christianity, and the Seder has much to teach us. It's important to remember how central the Exodus story has been to the Jewish tradition, and how essential the Exodus story has been to many Christians, especially those that have been held in bondage.

Last year, I was still a member of my old church, and the Pastor, who had volunteered to create a Seder meal was having some trouble, so I volunteered to help. I found Marge Piercy's Pesach for the Rest of Us: Making the Passover Seder Your Own (Schocken Books, 2007) to be an invaluable resource.

Not only does Piercy discuss each individual element of the meal and offer recipes and prayers, she explores the theology behind each element. Piercy also does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of the Exodus story and how it continues to shape us. She reminds us, "Each person should find the work of redemption that touches their innermost values and sense of how things ought to be as opposed to how they are. That is part of the story of the Exodus, the rising in revolt against what is unfair and painful and unjust" (7).

It's probably too late to plan a Seder for a large group, although perhaps I underestimate the skills that individuals possess. But it's not too late to read this book and to ponder the importance of the Exodus story. It's not too late to buy some ingredients and to try a new recipe. It's not too late to add an Old Testament story to our Holy Week reading.

This week Passover begins on Maundy Thursday, which doesn't happen every year. Unfortunately, it means that most of us Christians won't be joining our Jewish friends at their Seders, since the days we would be most welcome would be Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (the first two days involve the ritual and the food, as one of my Jewish friends explained it to me, and are the days when non-Jews are most welcome). Still, for me the years when Holy Week twines around Passover are years that seem to have powerful symbolic opportunities, and it would be a shame to let this year go to waste.

So, explore the foods of Pesach and let yourself think about how those foods and symbols have found their way into Christianity, and indeed, into the non-religious sections of popular culture. Give yourself some meditation time as you prepare these ritual foods. Piercy ends her haggadah by saying, "Go in peace into the springtime and be renewed," which these religious rituals, the ones of Passover and Holy Week, are designed to help us do.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Happy Holy Week!

On my other blog, I wrote the following, which seemed worth sharing here: This week is one of those interesting weeks where various religious high holy days intersect. Today Palm Sunday begins the Holy Week that will culminate in Easter Sunday, and Passover starts on Thursday. For years, I wasn't much of a churchgoer, but I was in tune to these rhythms that filled me with a sort of longing; Barbara Brown Taylor says, "No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it" (An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, page xiv-xv). I wish for all of us a chance to think in meaningful ways about bondage, escape, exile and homecoming, about redemption and salvation, about the ways these stories and our stories are still relevant in the world.

Praying for Social Justice through the Years

Being in a Catholic church on Thursday night, surrounded by a variety of Christians, a hunger for social justice bringing us together, reminded me of an earlier experience of mine.

In 1986, I had a summer job with Lutheran Social Services of the Washington, D.C. area. I had returned eagerly because I had worked for them the summer before. But in the summer of 1985, we had all sorts of community projects, and I really felt we were making a difference. In 1986, my job consisted of answering the phone to tell people that the agency had no money to offer.

People who called didn't respond by saying, "O.K., thank you." They told me sadder stories, as if I had a secret stash of money that I might give them. They reacted with anger.

One night in June of 1986, I went to a prayer service in downtown D.C. to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Soweto uprising and to pray for peace and an end to apartheid in South Africa. I didn't labor under any delusions that we were creating change, but I drew a certain comfort from the ritual. My friend wore a "Free Nelson Mandela" t-shirt, but we didn't really think it would happen.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison a few years later, I thought of that prayer service. When South Africans stood in line for days to vote for him, I wept. And I thought of that prayer service.

My atheist friends will ask me (rather indignantly) if I really think that our prayers made a difference. I answer, "I don't know." But what does it hurt to pray? Why do my atheist friends get so outraged at the idea? Again, I don't know.

Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).

And even if we're not sure we believe in prayer, Marcus Borg, who has his doubts about prayer, has words for us: "And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something works, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity, page 197).

It's important to remember that there are many ways to work for justice, and one of the most important is to keep in our minds a vision of a better world, a place of peace and justice. Too many of us succumb to despair. We can't believe that change will come. Yet the history of the late twentieth century teaches us that social change may come in what appears to be a sudden instant, although observant people have been preparing for years or decades.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Justice vs. Charity

Last night I went to a B.O.L.D. Justice (Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice) rally. This group is made up of religious people, primarily of the Protestant Mainline and Catholic varieties, who have come together to work on eradicating poverty, or at least to alleviate issues that aggravate poverty.

Last year, they focused their efforts on dental care. And now, a year later, there are more dental clinics, more money for dental care for those who can't afford it, and more dental health care workers employed in our county.

Will all poor people have good teeth now? No. But they have a better chance.

Last night's demands revolved around affordable housing and jobs. The leaders of the group had specific action plans, and they invited city and county politicians to the rally, where they asked for commitments from them. They had already met with these people, so these ideas weren't new. But there they were, in front of a huge amount of people, making a commitment.

And they know that they'll be watched and held accountable.

My husband asked me if I thought it would make a difference. I said that I did think it would make a difference.

It certainly won't solve all the problems. Even if we should achieve the modest increase in availability of affordable rental properties that we demanded, there will still be a serious shortfall between what's needed and what's available. Even if the new jobs created by the new federal stimulus projects go to Broward workers first (more specifically, for the first 30 days after the job creation, the job will only be available to people who live in Broward county), as we demanded, crafty people will still find ways around that.

Still, every little positive difference counts. And even if we aren't successful at creating change, God still calls on us to work for justice.

Not to contribute to charity, although God mandates that too. But to work for justice.

In a book I cannot recommend highly enough, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg explains the difference this way: "Charity means helping the victims. Justice asks, 'Why are there so many victims?' and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is, the way the system is structured. Justice is not about Caesar increasing his charitable giving or Pilate increasing his tithe. Justice is about social transformation. Taking the political vision of the Bible seriously means the practice of social transformation" (page 201).

He offers this comfort: "The world's need for systemic transformation is great, but it is important not to become passive or discouraged ('without heart') because the need is so great. None of us is called to be knowledgeable about all of it or capable of doing something about all of it " (page 204).

Last night I was tired and cranky after a day of meetings and workshops, and I was tempted to stay home and go to bed early. But for years, I have yearned to belong to a church that supported activities like a rally for justice, and now that I'm finally a part of a church that does, I feel it's important that I actually participate.

And I'm so glad I went. I sat with my new church friends and looked around the beautiful Catholic church and felt so inspired; my work day exhaustion just melted away. Tomorrow I'll blog about a time in 1986 when I felt a similar feeling, at an anti-apartheid prayer service.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

"An Altar in the World"

I read an except of Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World in a recent The Christian Century. I bought the book the next day, and it arrived in the mail yesterday. I devoured half of it last night.

These days I am so grateful for any book that can gather my fragmented attention and focus it. I am so grateful for a book that makes me say, "Hmm, I could stay up one hour more and still function tomorrow." These days, it's the rare book that I can't put down.

An Altar in the World is one of those rare books. Barbara Brown Taylor has theological training and served for years as an Episcopal priest, but her latest book focuses on the idea of finding God outside of a church and the sacramental aspect of every day activities.

For example, she talks about hanging up wet laundry, hanging up the clothes and praying for the people who wear them, for the trees that died to make the clothespins, for the company that makes the clothespins. She talks of laundry fluttering like prayer flags.

She gives us wonderful nuggets like this one after she's talked about the reliability of the results of her daily exercise routine on the treadmill: "Spiritual practices are not like this. The only promise they make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know--about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God" (page 59). She also gives us wonderful quotes by other people, like this one by Thich nhat Hanh: "The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth."

She's remarkably clearheaded about an honest spiritual life. Taylor isn't one of those theologians who will offer you a magical prayer of Jabaz or promise great riches if you follow certain principles. She says, "Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure" (page 78). Finally, someone who is willing to talk about these issues! And someone who writes about them so beautifully.

Just because she's talking about finding God outside of a church building doesn't mean that she's left behind her Christian beliefs. She talks about prayer, Sabbath keeping, and other spiritual practices (like paying attention to one's surroundings). She makes many references to great spiritual thinkers, most of them Christian. Her writing makes clear that she has been shaped by Christian values and that she hasn't abandoned them.

In fact, she's widening the possibilities for experiencing the Divine, which will be of great value to the many folks who aren't going to find God in a church building. What a wonderful accomplishment!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 5, 2009:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Mark 14:1--15:47

Gospel (Alt.): Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Every so often, I come across a song or hymn (and sometimes, a book or a preacher) who seems to have a strangely Old Testament view of God. This past week, it was a song that expressed the belief that God gives and God takes away, and God's approach to this giving and taking away is arbitrary and impossible to understand.

How peculiar, I thought. I can accept the idea that God tries to give and only finds my clenched hands. I can accept that my needs might take some time for God to meet (like a faculty member who asked to be relieved from teaching on Saturdays--I can do that for her, but not immediately, since classes start in a week, and the schedule is set). I can accept that God has a larger picture, and some of my yearnings may not fit with the larger vision.

The idea of a capricious God who says, "Ha, ha, ha! I gave you that great job, and now I'm going to yank it away. But first I'll wait until you've financed some purchases, and you're really counting on the money. Then I'll have you lose your job. And I'll throw in a health crisis, just for my own amusement"--that's a horrifying idea. Those things may indeed happen to me--but it's not the fault of God.

This week, most Christians will hear the Passion story. We start with Palm Sunday, where so many people seemed so enraptured with Jesus. Yet days later, they're willing to crucify him.

The lesson here: God is not fickle; it's humans and the societies that humans create that are fickle. You can be acclaimed in one season and denounced in the next.

Our Scripture readings remind us again and again of the folly of putting our faith in the things of this world, and we seem to be living in a time period that proves the Scripture. Those of us who didn't invest in stocks may have invested in our houses, and some of us cautious folks kept our money in what we thought were safe structures (money market accounts, savings accounts). Ha, ha, the joke is on us all. Many of us went to school so that we would have white collar jobs that we could count on. And now, we're discovering that we're just as expendable as your average factory worker.

The Passion story reminds us that dreadful things may happen to us. God took on human form, and even God couldn't avoid horrific pain and suffering. But the Passion story also reminds us that we are not alone. God is there in the midst of our human dramas. If we believe in free will and free choices, then God may not be able to protect us from the consequences of our decisions. But God will be there to be our comfort and our strength.